Creating High-Quality Proposals as a Small Business

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Small businesses frequently face challenges, especially in the beginning, in producing compelling and competitive proposals. In organizations where people wear multiple hats, it can be hard to find the time or someone with the experience to put together a proposal that is as polished and professional looking as that of a larger company. Many large proposal shops have dedicated proposal managers, coordinators, writers, graphic artists, desktop publishers, editors, financial analysts and more who can focus on one aspect of the response, with the experience to drive it to near perfection. Companies with smaller proposal shops, or those that have no dedicated proposal shop at all, certainly do not have that luxury. One person may have to fill many or all those roles, while still doing their “day job.”

Regardless of those challenges and constraints, there are some things you can do and repeatable processes you can put in place (even informally) that will help you to produce a compelling and professional-looking proposal every time.

Create templates.

Take the time to create templates. It’s easy to take an old proposal, delete the content and reuse the shell.  Sure, you can do this every time you start a new proposal, but creating an actual template will save time in the long run. Your template should include, at a minimum, the following:

  • Set styles that can be modified (text font and size) for each proposal with the click of a button, instead of changing it all manually
  • Highlighted placeholders for the RFP name and/or number in the header so you don’t forget to change that information, as you might when reusing a recycled proposal document
  • A sample call-out box and a sample table that are already formatted using your brand styles and colors so you don’t have to create and format them from scratch in a blank document

Evaluators do not score proposals based on appearance, but if your proposal looks polished, consistent and professional, people are going to be more receptive of the content.

Begin gathering reusable content.

Proposal repositories can be like black holes, especially for large organizations, but good ones are worth their weight in gold. If you start building your repositories while you’re small and maintain the content on a regular basis, you will be able to reduce the time spent on initial drafts of your proposals by hours. Start with the simple and most used elements of a response:

  • Recruiting and retention/training
  • Company history and capabilities
  • Project write-ups (for past performance/experience sections)
  • Management process
  • Other commonly used processes (development [user stories, sprints], testing, etc.)

The two most important tasks that need to be done to ensure that this exercise is valuable and useful are making your repository searchable and continually updating the write-ups as your processes change and mature. The latter can be accomplished by naming the individual files with keywords or, if you use a repository such as SharePoint, tagging the files with relevant keywords.

Resume template and database.

This is one area where smaller companies have a definite advantage over larger organizations. Maintaining a useful database of resumes is virtually impossible for a company with hundreds or thousands of employees. For a smaller company, however, it’s easy and a huge time saver to format and store resumes (and brief cameos) of the people who are frequently proposed as key personnel in your proposals.

As new people are hired who might be proposed in future responses, put their resumes into your template and store it in your database as a routine part of your hiring or onboarding process. Like the reusable content repository, it is important to update these artifacts regularly. Periodically ask people to update their resumes with recent projects and experience so you always have their most current experience and education/training captured for use in the proposals.

Be consistent in your process and workflow.

Because people wear many hats in a small organization, it can be difficult to find people to review your proposals. People tend to be creatures of habit and do not like change. By setting expectations for your reviews and then being consistent in what you’re asking people to do each time, you will be more likely to get buy-in and participation from the reviewers. Here are some things to consider:

  • Are you going to have a formal in-brief and/or out-brief for each color review, or are you going to send an email with instructions and just ask for feedback?
  • How do you want people to provide their feedback? In the document with track changes? Comments in an email? Comments in a spreadsheet?
  • How do you decide which comments to recover? Just hand it off to the author? Discuss with a group of people?

Whatever the answer is to those and similar questions, be consistent across each proposal on how you handle these tasks. Doing something different each time can be frustrating for people and can allow things to be overlooked that would be taken care of with a standard, familiar process.

Having these and other repeatable tasks and reusable artifacts in place can go a long way to making your job in a small proposal shop or small company a lot less hectic during proposal time. It will also enable you to produce consistent and quality proposal responses to help your business (and your proposal shop) to grow.


Candy Jenkins, CPP APMP, is the proposal director at Pyramid Systems, Inc. She previously served for several years on the board of directors for the NCA Chapter, holding multiple roles during that time. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from Shenandoah University and can be reached on LinkedIn.

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